When you start reading a story where the first conversation is about something vaguely wrong, you might feel a little… anxious. (Unless the people are clowns discussing something wrong with their tiny car.) We'll be honest, the minute we started reading "The Veldt," we felt dread. This story gives us nightmares.
Yep, from paragraph one, we know that something is wrong, and it only gets worse from there. All the time, the Hadleys can hear screams that sound eerily familiar to Lydia. The lions are always eating and vultures are always flying. The sun causes the adults to start sweating almost immediately. Check it out: the fake sun comes out in paragraph 13 and by paragraph 14, George Hadley is perspiring; and when David McClean comes back to get the family (after the parents have been killed), as soon as he walks into the nursery, "He began to perspire" (264). The gadgets are malfunctioning and not listening to commands, especially the nursery. The lesson here is that the Happylife Home is not all it's cracked up to be.
In fact, it doesn't even work properly. Just take a look at this scene, when George Hadley goes to Africa and tries to command it:
"Go away," he said to the lions.
They did not go.
He knew the principle of the room exactly. You sent out your thoughts. Whatever you thought would appear.
"Let's have Aladdin and his lamp," he snapped.
The veldtland remained; the lions remained.
"Come on, room! I demand Aladdin!" he said.
Nothing happened. (74-80)
That one-two structure of (1) George commanding ("Go away") and (2) nothing happening ("They did not go") tells us right off the bat that things are not as they should be. The dude is yelling at his room, for crying out loud. And not only is he yelling at his room, the room isn't responding. The nerve!
Once we're reminded by the phrase "he knew the principle of the room exactly" that the room is supposed to respond the George's thoughts, the fact that the room is rebelling is even more horrifying. Once we hear that, and realize that George still can't make the room change, we know something is really, really wrong. Plus, the fact that George keeps trying to do something that clearly isn't working might make us feel a little worried about his sanity as well.
To be fair, the story isn't out-and-out horrifying all the way through. The screams are familiar to Lydia, but we never hear why until the end. The lions are always eating—but what, we're not sure. Bradbury keeps a little distance here so that the story doesn't scare us with blood like Saw. Instead, it makes us nervous like Paranormal Activity.
This story uses more of a slow burn when it comes to the terror. For instance, after George fails to make the nursery obey his commands, he doesn't freak out and destroy the room because it's evil and creepy. No, the guy just goes back to Lydia and tells her that it's "out of order" (82), as if it were just a vending machine or a public toilet. See, there's something wrong, but George remains calm and there's always a logical explanation for everything. So, there's no reason to worry, right?
But we'd leave the light on, because we're worried. We're very worried. And that's dread.
Irony isn't always funny. And in "The Veldt," irony overlaps with the dread, which is not something you see every day. What do we mean, exactly? Let's take a look.
You might expect a nursery to be a safe place where children are nurtured, right? Instead, the nursery is the most dangerous room in the house. In other words, Bradbury sometimes flips our expectations—and usually flips them so we see the dark side of things. That's irony.
Or take, for example, the similarities that "The Veldt" shares with the Peter Pan story. Except, in Peter Pan, the kids are reunited with their parents (hooray!), but in "The Veldt," not only are they separated from their parents forever, the twins are the agents of that separation (the opposite of hooray!).
To close, we'll just say this: you know movies where kids do outrageously grown-up things and it's cute? Well, Peter says unexpectedly grown-up things. But it's not cute. Nope, not cute at all. Instead, he utters creepy threats that make our spines tingle—things like, "I don't think you'd better consider it any more, Father" (171). That doesn't sound like a kid. That sounds like an axe murderer. And that, in a nutshell, is Bradbury's dreadful irony.
Some people argue that Bradbury isn't a science fiction writer because his science is all made up. Like "odorophonic" and "mental tape"—those aren't real things based on scientific fact or theory. Bradbury is just making them up so he can talk about how people use new, fictional technology.
But that's precisely the point, folks. That's why we think of him as a science fiction writer in the first place: his stories are about people using new technology. And misusing it, to be sure.
We consider this a tragedy because it ends, well, tragically for George and Lydia Hadley. (To be fair, if you're a lion, it's a happy ending indeed.) Plus, these parents are killed by their tragic flaw: plain old bad parenting.
Frankly, it's hard to imagine what a happy ending would even be here: if George gives in to his kids, he has failed as a father. If he opposes his kids, they're going to kill him. And that's a classic tragic choice: failure or death.
Like most stories where children use fake lions to kill their parents, there's something a little horrifying about "The Veldt." It could easily be an episode of Tales from the Crypt. (Though they usually use ventriloquist's dummies—not virtual felines.)
Dystopian literature is all about terrible societies of the future. Think Panem from The Hunger Games. But all we ever see in "The Veldt" is one house and one family (plus their shrink). So how in the world could this be considered dystopian? There's no society.
We're calling it dystopian because this very same story could be taking place just about anywhere. Parents and kids could be struggling over control of nurseries (and other gadgets) all over the world. As David McClean notes, "too many others" (203) are having the same experience of using too many gadgets. Okay okay, so maybe virtual reality lions aren't eating parents in every house. But just about everyone is clocking too many hours on their electronic doohickeys, and that's what makes this story a rather universal, rather terrible vision of the future.
When it comes to the title of this story, Bradbury sure had a lot of ideas to choose from. The whole thing takes place in the Hadley's house, so why not "Happylife Home"? Or it could have been called "The Nursery," since that's what this family is fighting over. But Bradbury opted for the much stranger "The Veldt."
Why? Well for one thing, it helps focus us on the world that the kids are imagining—a world full of death and lacking any adult supervision. (Like Vegas, only with fewer lions.)
In fact, when this story was first published, it was titled "The World the Children Made." This title would have worked well thematically, given that the focus here is on the children and their rather disturbing behavior, which is, of course, a result of their rather dangerous minds. This story is all about what the children made.
Except, here's the problem: that title tells us to focus on what the children make, but it doesn't actually tell us what they make. "The Veldt" does. It keeps our attention on this lions-run-amok imaginary world that is the product of the children's horrifying imaginations. It's about more than gadgetry and newfangled technology. At its heart, this is a story about some seriously nutso kids.
The kids win, which makes this a tragedy. (Unless you're the kids. Or the lions.) That's what's clear about the ending: 1) George and Lydia get lured into the nursery; 2) the lions get them; 3) the kids win.
What's unclear here is what that "lions get them" means. If you like your horror bloody, you'll say "the lions eat the parents." That's what we say, even though it doesn't entirely make sense. How do fake lions eat real people?
Bradbury carefully sidesteps this question by hinting throughout the story that the lions can affect real, tangible things. For instance, after George and Lydia escape from the nursery at the beginning of the story, Lydia asks if the lions can get out and the door trembles "as if something had jumped against it from the other side" (61). That's a big hint that the lions can have a physical impact on the world outside their virtual one. And we have our suspicions that the lions can affect the real world confirmed beyond a doubt when George says that the lions can't, since George is almost never right.
But because Bradbury doesn't come right out and say what happens (see "Style" for more on that), the ending is open to some interpretation. In one radio version from 1955, Dr. McClean reports that the parents haven't really been eaten, but now the whole family needs therapy. As in, they were attacked by fake lions and now they need to talk it out.
But whether the lions become real and do physical damage or the lions remain virtual and inflict only emotional damage, the story tells us that emotions are Serious Business in family life. After all, the lions are only there to hurt the parents because the kids are feeling so… hurtful.
Whatever happens to the parents, the gist is clear: the kids win. And when we see them at the end, they are enjoying a picnic at the same time as the lions are enjoying their meal. Shudder.
Ladies and Gentlemen. We present you with our latest product, the Happylife Home! For just $30,000, you can revolutionize the way you live your life! No longer will you have to slave away in the kitchen or watch your kids every second of every minute of every hour of every day! The kitchen will cook your meals for you! The house will rock your kiddos to sleep! And best of all, there's a built in nursery that will occupy the little ones for hours as they visit all the wonderful corners of the world in virtual reality—from the safety of your own home!
Sounds great, right? In fact, it sounds like something right out of a 1950s Sears and Roebuck catalog. How could you not want a Happylife Home that would do everything for you, and never once complain?
Well, it may not complain, but it just might eat you. And that's the truth about the Happylife Home. For the Hadleys, it seems like a dream come true. But when things go wrong, it's clear that automation isn't all it's cracked up to be. No matter what these gadgets can do, they're no replacement for good old-fashioned parenting.
We'll be honest: Shmoop doesn't know when this story takes place. It's the future, sure, but that's all we can say. We don't know when exactly it happens, which makes the story seem more applicable to our own time, don't you think? Because this story doesn't take place in a specific future year, you might read it with the nagging feeling that Bradbury is talking about the present. He's sneaky like that. (See "Style" for more sneakiness.)
The real star of the setting here is the virtual African veldt. It's the place that gets the most description, plus it's the title of the book, so, you know, it's pretty significant. We hear all about the sounds of antelope and the smells of the grass. Bradbury spends more time telling us about the veldt than any other place, so we can't help but pay close attention.
The virtual reality room renders this Africa "to the final pebble and bit of straw" (13). This is better than HD; it's like really being there. Bradbury is careful here to give us lots of sensory information, like the scents of the scene: "The hot straw smell of lion grass, the cool green smell of the hidden water hole, the great rusty smell of animals, the smell of dust like a red paprika in the hot air" (17). And these smells also invade the rest of the house. Sadly, virtual Africa is not like Vegas—what happens there does not stay there.)
The nursery is a little too real, as George notes when he says, "This is a little too real." (15). Gee, that one really requires our powers of analysis. But even though the nursery is too real, it matters that it's still virtual. Remember, this nursery responds to the children's minds. So its virtual reality tells us about the mental reality going on in the kids' brains. And it's not a pretty picture.
Yep, they are thinking about death. They are thinking about a place that is free of adults (or any people, even these awesome Maasai cricket players). They are thinking about a wild place without rules, where anything goes, including patricide-by-lion.
What else do you think about when you picture this veldt? For some actual pictures, check out this South African park.
And here's one more question we've been dying to ask: if you could go anywhere, in your very own nursery, where would it be? We know our answer, but we're totally not sharing…
Bradbury usually writes pretty clearly. He's fond of using a noun, plus a verb, plus a little something extra just for fun. For instance: "The lions came running at them" (32).
But to be fair, the guy can get a little confusing, especially when he's making up words and describing new technology. For instance, "Now, as George and Lydia Hadley stood in the center of the room, the walls began to purr and recede into crystalline distance, it seemed, and presently an African veldt appeared, in three dimensions, on all sides, in color reproduced to the final pebble and bit of straw" (13).
That's pretty long, so it's fine to slow down and read these moments carefully, taking in all the little details, including the pebble. In fact, we can assume that's just what Bradbury wants us to do—read carefully. There are little clues he drops here which jump out when we slow down. The walls "purr"? Well, maybe that's just the sound of the tech in the walls, like a car engine. But maybe "purr" subtly prepares us for the lions to appear.
Also, there's a little difficulty with the POV (which we'll talk about in… oh, let's say our "Narrator Point of View" section). And also a little good ol' fashioned ambiguity in the ending (so go check out "What's Up With the Ending?").
If you've read Bradbury or our learning guides about his work, you might know that he likes his metaphors and similes. (Check out the guides to Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451 for more examples.) In a Bradbury story, one thing is always like another thing. For instance, in "The Veldt," the virtual sun in Africa is "like a hot paw" (66). And the lion's yellow eyes are "like the yellow of an exquisite French tapestry" (29). And… well, there are a lot of them.
These metaphors don't come out and tell us stuff directly. They hint. The sun = hot paw comment, for example, reminds us of the connection between Africa and the lions. And French tapestry-like eyes, well that makes us see the lions as something beautiful and artistic. After all, just like tapestries, these lions are essentially man-made. They are creations of the nursery, which was also made by people. George actually has a little rapturous thought along these lines when he comes into the nursery: "George Hadley was filled with admiration for the mechanical genius who had conceived this room" (28).
So the lions are artistic and beautiful creations. But what George forgets—and what we might forget too—is that lions are also deadly. Whoops. We got distracted by the metaphor and then the lions ate us.
Bradbury has a hard time being a straight shooter. Sometimes, he simply refuses to give us the scoop directly, and sometimes he even leaves stuff out. If he were writing a paper for English class, he probably wouldn't get a good grade, but since he's a famous writer, we're willing to cut him some slack.
He likes to hint or make us catch up. For instance, check out the opening of the story: we hear two people talking back and forth. Who are they and where are they and when are they? Who knows? We can gather from the first line that one of them is named "George" and we know by the seventh paragraph that the other is his wife and that they are in the kitchen. But that's all we get. Bradbury leaves out a ton. We can't really answer simple questions about what these people look like or where they live or what year it is. But here's the question: why?
By leaving big blanks, Bradbury makes his story more universal. For example, we can all imagine ourselves as George because George has whatever hair we have (or don't have). So while Bradbury's gaps may be frustrating at times (especially if you're trying to picture these people in all their glory), he's leaving things out on purpose. (Plus, the guy was being paid by the word. It's not like he benefits from being succinct.)
Let's take a peek at the biggest gap of all: the end of the story. What happens to the parents? Bradbury leaves that open because, if he were to tell his readers that George and Lydia got eaten by lions, it would change a dreadful story (see "Tone") into a gory horror story. But if they don't get eaten, well then the story probably doesn't seem so bad for the parents. In other words, Bradbury wants us to imagine the parents meeting (oh, we almost wrote "meating"!) a bad end, but he doesn't want to spell it out for us because that would ruin the effect.
The nursery in "The Veldt" isn't just an awesome virtual reality room where parents can park their kids. If it were, we would totally want one in our house. Maybe. But the nursery in "The Veldt" is basically the scariest room that has ever existed.
We've already discussed (in "In a Nutshell") how the nursery may be a symbol for television, the hot new toy of the 1950s: it's entertaining and useful, sure, but it can be a little scary and new, too.
But according to Lydia and George, the nursery is also an example of what's gone wrong with their technology-focused lives. Lydia may start off worried about the nursery, but she's also worried about the automated house in general. The nursery takes care of the kids and the house takes care of itself, so what's she supposed to do?
At the end of the story, George agrees with Lydia (a little too late) about the nursery and their gadgets. When George turns off the nursery, he also goes around and turns off all the rest of their doohickeys. Let's put it this way: for George, the nursery is just one symptom of a disease called technology (229).
See, the problem is, the nursery and the rest of their technology not only replace the parents, but also mess up the family dynamic on the whole. Technology puts the kids in charge, like when they "televise" to say that they're not coming home for dinner (63). And the parents are treated like children by the house, which cooks and cleans for them, but also tries to comfort them (48) and rock them to sleep (150).
All of this is to say that technology is evil in this story, right? Hmm. We're not so sure. It might be a little more complicated. Take David McClean as an example: he tells George that they should turn off the whole house, especially the nursery because it's being used for "destructive thoughts." But he goes on to tell George that he never likes these nurseries—"never" meaning that even when they're working correctly he doesn't like them. He even calls them "damned rooms" (208), and anything "damned" isn't safe for the family. So, since David is kind of an expert, we might trust him here and say "technology = evil."
Not so fast, though. Remember that David is coming back to take the Hadleys to the airport. That means David thinks planes are a-okay. (Maybe he's rich and doesn't have to fly coach like the rest of us.) So the nursery and automated house are bad bad bad, but a plane is totally cool in David's book? What, exactly, are we supposed to take away from this mixed message? The story probably isn't saying that all technology is evil since David a) is the expert and b) likes some technology.
But if not all technology is evil, why is the nursery such bad news? Are we supposed to think that too much tech is dangerous? Or that it's all about how we use it? Maybe the nursery wouldn't be so bad if the kids had proper parents and didn't overuse its virtual reality. Or maybe the nursery is bad news in the first place because it allows the kids to escape their true reality and create their own (horrifying) one. Whatever the case, it's clear that there are lots of ways to go on this one. The treatment of technology in "The Veldt" is anything but cut and dried.
P.S. There's also something to the fact that this room is called a nursery, right? A nursery is a place where children are taken care of by their parents or other trusted adults. But who's nursing in this nursery? A computer. A robot. The room itself. Lydia, the one who should be in the nursery (according to those 1950s standards of child rearing), is slowly being replaced by a big, bad, soulless technology. Yowza.
Bradbury could have the kids playing anywhere. They could be at Disneyland, having some good clean fun. Or they could be riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. Hey, the kids could even be playing in a virtual reality version of the Arctic, and wolves could eat the parents.
That version of the story would still have many of the key elements of "The Veldt": parents vs. kids, technology amuck, the virtual reality room. That pretty much covers it, right? So what gives? Why Africa, and not the Arctic (or some other dangerous place).
Perhaps it's the hot weather and the sweltering sun. Perhaps there's something uniquely terrifying about lions (as opposed to wolves, bears, or even dragons). Perhaps the kids just really wanted to go on a safari. In any case, we think choosing the African veldt as the setting in the nursery holds some pretty big significance. But that's just it: it's a setting. So head on over to our "Setting" section for a more thorough discussion of just what's up with the African veldt.
In our "Setting" section, we've got all kinds of info on the African veldt (to sum up: hot, dangerous, no Starbucks). But here we'd like to talk about one particular element of that setting as a symbol in its own right. That's right, Shmoopers, let's tackle those lions.
Why lions? If you wrote a story where bad things happened to people in Africa, you have a lot to choose from: poisonous snakes, dying of thirst, wild dogs, no Starbucks. Bradbury could have chosen any of those rather horrifying options. But he didn't. He chose lions. And there has to be a reason, right?
When we first see the lions, they are just finishing up eating something (20), which you'll get used to over the whole story's length: the lions are always eating… something. The fact that we don't know what they're chowing down on might make you nervous, especially since it makes Lydia nervous.
Frankly, her instincts are right. Just check out this sentence when the lions first approach Mama Lydia and Papa George:
And here were the lions now, fifteen feet away, so real, so feverishly and startlingly real that you could feel the prickling fur on your hand, and your mouth was stuffed with the dusty upholstery smell of their heated pelts, and the yellow of them was in your eyes like the yellow of an exquisite French tapestry, the yellows of lions and summer grass, and the sound of the matted lion lungs exhaling on the silent noontide, and the smell of meat from the panting, dripping mouths. (29)
That's one long sentence, and as usual when Bradbury gives us a long sentence, he wants us to slow down and take it all in. Notice how this introduction plays on all the senses. You feel the "prickling fur," almost taste their "heated pelts," see their yellow eyes, hear their "matted lion lungs," and smell their meaty-smelling mouths. This is surround-sound experience, and if you had a sixth sense, it would be telling you run.
These sensory descriptions are, in a word, aggressive. The smell and taste of their fur is like "your mouth was stuffed." That's good when we're talking about cannoli, but very bad when we're talking about lions. And their yellow color is "in your eyes" which also sounds like you had better head straight to one of those scary eyewash stations in chemistry class. Plus, it's not just that you can hear them—they are the only things making a sound in this "silent noontide." The lesson? These lions are dominating the scene, and they are deadly.
It makes sense that it's lions, then, and not some other threatening creature. Lions are often symbols of power and authority, and we can see here that Bradbury highlights their power in the scene by allowing them to totally take over. Plus, that whole idea of power reminds us that this story is, at its heart, a power struggle. The fight between the parents and their twins is a fight for control over the family itself, and that's the Serious Issue that drives the whole family.
We're flies on the walls of the nursery, folks, because "The Veldt" is told from a third person point of view:
"Go to bed," [George] said to the children. (116)
That's a simple sentence that tells us what we see happening. Brace yourselves: George tells his kids to go to bed. Why does George tell his kids to go to bed? Well, we don't know, because this sentence doesn't tell us anything about his motivation, his thoughts, or even his facial expression. Here, this third-person narrator only tells us what we could see if we were flies on the wall of the Happylife Home.
But then, every once in a while, we also get some little (and not-so-little) glimpses into George's head. For instance, when George is eating dinner with Lydia and without the kids (who are at the carnival), we get to see all his thoughts about the veldt:
As for the nursery, thought George Hadley, it won't hurt for the children to be locked out of it awhile. (66)
The narrator has jumped right inside George's head and is giving us the skinny on what's going down up there. And the narrator is cuing us in on the fact that that's happening. But there are also times when the narrator will give us a glimpse into George's thoughts without telling us "George thought," like this line, from the next paragraph:
Death thoughts. They were awfully young, Wendy and Peter, for death thoughts. Or, no, you were never too young, really. (67)
How do we know that these are still George's thoughts? Because our oh-so-proper narrator would never do something so ungrammatical as speak in incomplete sentences ("Death thoughts"); and the narrator doesn't change his opinion—he's much too steady for that. George, on the other hand, is a little more fickle. Notice how George changes his mind while he's thinking: the kids are too young… well, maybe not.
We also know that these are George's thoughts because they continue the same line of thinking from the previous paragraph. So paragraph 66 told us, in a big neon sign, "These are George's thoughts," and then paragraph 67 continues the same thoughts in the same language. We're in his head. And we're trapped! (Okay, not really.)
Sometimes George's perspective comes through in just one or two words. For instance, George has looked in on "Africa" during dinner, but when he confronts his kids about it, Wendy goes and changes the nursery to some other setting. So when George and Lydia go back to look at the nursery, they find a beautiful jungle instead of the deadly veldt. And we get this line:
George Hadley looked in at the changed scene. (116)
When George looks in, he sees the beautiful jungle, but that's not what we hear first. What we hear first is that George looked at "the changed scene." Bradbury could've written that "George Hadley looked in at the scene," but by adding that single word "changed," he reminds us what George knows—that Wendy has changed the nursery. That one word tells us some mischief is afoot. And by mischief we mean deadly deeds.
Hey, you know what? Maybe this one word "changed" also gives us a clue about why he tells the kids to get to bed. Remember, in that simple line, we only heard about the external. We heard what George said but not why he said it. But in this line, we get a clue: George tells his kids to get to bed because he knows that this room was changed. In other words, George knows his kids are lying liars telling lies about Africa. It's bedtime for the little baddies.
But given all this narrative technique, here's the real question: if so much of this story is filtered through George, why not just write a first person story? Because:
(1) we know that George isn't crazy, because the narrator also told us that the room was Africa. Phew.
(2) we also get to see what George thinks about this problem, which is kind of the point in a story about parenting.
But how do you think this story would be different if we heard about it from Lydia's or the kids' point of view? Would Lydia think her husband is being stupid for not seeing what she sees so easily? Would Peter see his parents as villainous tyrants? Would Wendy see David McClean as this weird invader instead of as a walk-on expert?
"The Veldt" can be read as a story about how George Hadley changes his feelings about technology. At the beginning, George thinks the nursery is the cat's meow (or the lion's roar?), but Lydia is worried about how much time the kids spend in the virtual reality Africa.
George isn't so worried. But he's getting more worried. Which is why the parents and the children start to clash over the whole "playing in Africa with human-eating lions" thing. Things are not looking good in the Hadley Household.
Remember in The Matrix how Neo had to choose whether to continue living in a machine world or break out into the real world? That's kind of George's situation too.
He started out liking the nursery (and the whole house). Then he became a little more worried about it when his kids talked back to him. So now, at the climax of the story, he has to make a big ol' decision: live it up in the Smart House or shut it all down?
Now, you might want to say that the lion attack is the most exciting part of the story. We totally agree. So why isn't that the climax? Well, we like to think of the climax as the point when someone faces some major decision.
Unfortunately, this decision means it's the house and the kids against George and Lydia, which leads to…
After George makes his decision, the kids and the nursery defeat George and Lydia. (But at least George made a choice, right?)
George and Lydia may be lion chow, but the real kick in the pants is that the kids have also made their choice. As David said they would, they chose the nursery over their real parents.
Notice how David finds them? The lions and the kids are both eating. Creepy. In this moment, we're reminded of just how close the kids are to their gadgets. We sympathize, because we only eat while our iPods are charging. Otherwise, our hands are busy scrolling.